China–US talks offer optimism at bleak time for arms control

The nuclear talks could lay the groundwork for crucial agreement on risk reduction.

Expert comment Published 9 November 2023 Updated 14 November 2023 4 minute READ

After many years of fruitless ‘talks about talks’, China and the US have just met in Washington for what is hoped to be the first in a series of discussions on nuclear arms control, the first since the Obama administration.

The meetings, said to be at the ‘working level’, will likely focus on developing a new approach based on increasing transparency and risk reduction rather than on numbers and inspections. It is hoped that this discussion will feed into a high-level meeting between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping in San Francisco later in November.

Until now, China has resisted attempts to enter into talks with the US on either a trilateral (with Russia) or bilateral basis, saying that until the US and Russia reduce their numbers down to China’s level – or until China’s build-up matches the numbers of Russia and the US – they would not join the talks.

This attitude would make sense if the concerns were just about numbers. The US has in deployment and in stock some 3,700 warheads, Russia has more at approximately 4,500, whereas China’s are estimated to be in the 400 range. China however is growing its nuclear weapons capabilities by increasing numbers and platforms, including submarine-launched weapons.

The risk of just one weapon

The issue about nuclear weapons, however, is that the use of just one would be a humanitarian catastrophe. As President Obama said in Prague in 2009, ‘One nuclear weapon exploded in one city -– be it New York or Moscow, Islamabad or Mumbai, Tokyo or Tel Aviv, Paris or Prague –- could kill hundreds of thousands of people. And no matter where it happens, there is no end to what the consequences might be – for our global safety, our security, our society, our economy, to our ultimate survival.’

The veiled and overt threats from President Putin about using nuclear weapons against Ukraine has shocked the international community.

In addition to the large-scale immediate deaths, long-term radiation would spread far and wide. Exploding hundreds of nuclear warheads in urban areas – a likely escalation scenario – would not only be disastrous for the cities and countries in which they are used. The radioactive debris would spread throughout the world via winds and interhemispheric mixing, injecting also a massive amount of carbon into the upper atmosphere, blocking out the sun, inhibiting crop growth, and leading to a decade of global famine.

Preventing the use of nuclear weapons – and thus addressing the risks that nuclear weapons pose – is a major feature of international nuclear weapons control. The veiled and overt threats from President Putin and other senior Russian officials about using nuclear weapons against Ukraine has shocked the international community. China, remarkably, stepped in, urged restraint and it is believed that Xi expressed his concerns and displeasure to Putin directly.

Possible foundations for the talks

In January 2022, China and the US, along with France, Russia and the UK reiterated the 1986 Reagan–Gorbachev statement that nuclear war ‘cannot be won and must never be fought,’ as part of a longer declaration around reducing the risks of nuclear war. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only a few weeks later, and the ensuing nuclear threats have damaged the credibility of this statement, but still points to a potential foundation of agreement between the US and China that the current talks could build on.

Shared concerns

There are several avenues that could lead to areas of mutual agreement and action:

Both the US and China have expressed concern about Russia’s nuclear threats, calling publicly on Moscow not to resort to using nuclear weapons and reportedly speaking with Putin behind the scenes. This could be a good opening for further work – for example, with other nuclear states via declaratory, doctrinal statements or physical deployment postures that communicate restraint, strengthening what is called the  ‘nuclear use taboo’.

China and the US could use their talks to jointly emphasize the importance of not conducting nuclear tests, and to indicate to Russia that testing would have consequences.

The US and China share common ground in opposing a resumption of nuclear tests. Both have signed, but not ratified, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and conducted their last nuclear weapons tests in the 1990s. Russia’s recent de-ratification of the CTBT is a grave cause for concern, as it suggests that Russia may be planning to conduct a nuclear test to further intensify nuclear signalling during its war against Ukraine.

China and the United States could use their talks to jointly emphasize the importance of not conducting nuclear tests, and to indicate to Russia that testing would have consequences. The talks also offer an opportunity for improved understanding of each other’s nuclear modernization plans. Increased transparency of their strategic and decision-making cultures would improve communication and therefore likely reduce risks.

There is also an urgent need for the two states to improve their confidence in existing risk reduction measures. A crisis hotline has been in place between the capitals since 2007, but when the United States wanted to use it earlier this year over the spy balloon incident, Beijing refused to take the call. In a nuclear crisis situation, this could lead to escalation to the nuclear level with disastrous consequences.

An important part of the risk-reduction dialogue between Presidents Biden and Xi will be addressing the role of AI in nuclear decision-making, particularly in command-and-control systems. The recent AI safety summit in the UK in which both states participated also provided important input to this conversation.

Another long-shared concern cont.

Another long-shared concern of both the US and China is how to deal with North Korea’s growing nuclear programme. While China has good relations with North Korea and treats the nuclear situation with a high degree of sensitivity, more instability or further proliferation on the Korean peninsula is not in China’s interest. China and the US could therefore meaningfully work together to develop a way forward to engage North Korea in a joint strategy to contain its nuclear capabilities.

Strained relations

Despite several areas of agreement, the US–China talks are going to be fragile.

China has vehemently objected to AUKUS, the submarine and technology collaboration between the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. This collaboration will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered – not nuclear armed – Virginia-class submarines from the US and learn how to build a new type of submarine co-developed with the US and the UK. China sees this as a provocation, as well as a dangerous escalation in the Pacific.

If common interests can improve lines of communication, escalation risks could reduce significantly.

Space security is another area in which the US and China clash. US legislation forbids NASA from cooperating with Chinese counterparts without explicit authorization. The US announced a moratorium on direct-ascent anti-satellite tests which several other states have joined, but not yet China. The inclusion of space security in the talk is an important basis for future progress.    

Despite this mistrust, the US and China talks provide some room for optimism in a bleak period. If these common interests can improve their lines of communication, escalation risks could reduce significantly. In the longer term, the talks could even pave the way for further nuclear arms reductions, or agreements on space security, building confidence in the potential for future arms control that could then extend to other nuclear-armed countries.